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Highmark Holiday Pops concerts offers much to choose from

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
Conductor Daniel Meyer Kristi Hedberg

Daniel Meyer has conducted many Highmark Holiday Pops concerts at Heinz Hall during the past decade, when he was a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra staff conductor. He was tapped to conduct this year's Holiday Pops concerts a week after principal Pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch died in August.

“This is kind of an homage to Marvin Hamlisch,” Meyer says. “He loved to put together Pops shows that were variety shows — essentially a little of this and a little of that. We'll introduce our guest artists on the first half and bring them back to perform together on the second half.”

Meyer will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops and Mendelssohn Choir at Highmark Holiday Pops concerts Thursday through Sunday at Heinz Hall.

Guest artists include vocalist Rachel DeShon, who won Hamlisch's Search for a Star competition, singing sheriff Ricky Manning, violinist Jenny Oaks Baker and dancers from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School.

Hamlisch had planned only the guest artists for the Holiday Pops before he died. Meyer put the actual program together in consultation with the soloists and symphony administrators.

“I did spend a lot of time with Marvin and thought he was a genius at putting programs together,” Meyer says. “The great thing about Marvin is he had a short attention span. So, if he felt something was dragging or not working out, he would make an instant medley out of it,” making cuts and segues right on the spot in rehearsal.

“It would try any other orchestra's patience,” Meyer says, “but the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony understood what he was doing, aiming to make it better, and they gave him a lot of latitude.”

DeShon will sing two Christmas songs before joining with the Mendelssohn Choir in “O Holy Night” to conclude the first half.

Baker will open the second half playing “Carol of the Bells” with the Mendelssohn Choir and later team up with DeShon and the choir in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Meyer says Baker, a former member of the National Symphony in Washington, is making a name for herself with a niche in the Pops world.

“Crossover would imply that she would play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, then a Disney album,” the conductor says. “She's making the violin a vehicle for well-played Pops music. Some of the things she's playing with us are from her first and second Christmas albums, arranged for expanded orchestra.”

Meyer spends most of his time with three orchestras — as artistic director of the Westmoreland Symphony and music director of the Erie Philharmonic and Asheville, N.C., Symphony.

He says the audience is growing for the orchestra at The Palace Theatre in Greensburg, which he calls “a gem of a hall.” On Feb. 2, Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley will play “Symphonie espagnole” on a program with Ludwig van Beethoven's “Pastorale” Symphony.

As music director in Erie and Asheville, Meyer had thought he could do a lot of cross programming but, because it's more important to program to the community, he finds he leads only one or two of the same pieces at both orchestras each year.

In May, he will conduct the first Asheville Symphony performance of Igor Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring,” which was first performed in Paris 100 years earlier.

The Eric Philharmonic will celebrate its centennial in 2013-14, a season featuring Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 and a new Double Concerto by David Stock to be played by Bendix-Balgley and the Erie orchestra's concertmaster Ken Johnston.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.

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